Opinion: Daily Journal

Lawmakers  should be rule makers, not cartographers

Death and taxes aren’t the only two certainties North Carolinians face. New congressional and legislative districts are coming, too — for 2020 (by court order) and 2022 (after the end-of-decade census).   

Chances also are strong the Tar Heel State will get a 14th congressional district, so reapportionment should be on the agenda for the 2022 election cycle.  

If lawmakers don’t want to spend most of the next three years in court fighting over new districts — spending taxpayer money which could go to better use — then they can limit the pain, the cost, and the public frustration by taking a few straightforward steps: Stop micromanaging the districts. And require the people who draw the maps to follow rules set in the constitution and by state courts.  

A couple of proposals introduced in February would get us closer to that goal.  

Reps. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Robert Reives, D-Chatham, have co-sponsored House Bill 69 and House Bill 140, which offer two different and positive alternatives to the problem of extreme partisanship in mapmaking. They do it by giving individual lawmakers a minimal role in designing the maps.  

The N.C. Constitution says the General Assembly has the sole authority to revise state House and U.S. congressional districts. Yet it doesn’t say the legislature has to draw the maps.  

For more than two decades, the John Locke Foundation (publisher of  Carolina Journal) has backed the establishment of an independent process to set district lines. So have host of “good government” groups, many of them left-leaning. The idea is to curb the power of elected officials to entrench themselves in districts they draw.   

H.B. 69 would use an appointed commission to handle the details. Similar commissions in about a dozen other states haven’t always lived up to reformers’ expectations. For one thing, the commissions often have a partisan slant, as officially “nonpartisan” seats get filled with those who either sympathize with a party or actively conceal partisan leanings. 

H.B. 140 takes a different tack. It would have legislative staff draw the maps, based on the state constitution, federal laws — including the Voting Rights Act — and a set of concise rules designed to prevent the party in power at the time of redistricting from getting an unfair advantage.  

Under both bills, the legislature would vote up or down on the final plan, giving lawmakers no opportunity to tweak it.  

Maps still would have to comply with the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. They’d have to satisfy the state constitution — each district with roughly equal numbers of residents, contiguous, and leaving counties whole whenever possible.  

But those requirements don’t go far enough. The proposals also would uphold principles set out in the 2002  Stephenson v. Bartlett  decisions by the N.C. Supreme Court.  

One important principle rarely applied in North Carolina maps but included in both bills: Districts should be compact.  

When congressional maps were redrawn for the 2014 election, residents of New Hanover County were outraged the 7th Congressional District no longer was limited to counties in that corner of the state but instead stretched northwest to the Research Triangle Park exurbs.  

The 9th Congressional District, which will elect a representative sometime this year (maybe), reaches from the southeastern suburbs of Charlotte east into Fayetteville and then Robeson County. It comprises many communities with often wildly divergent interests. 

Common-sense districts would look more like circles than boots — or snakes. Abiding by the  Stephenson  principles gets us closer to that goal. 

H.B. 140 also includes a proposed constitutional amendment. If put on the 2020 ballot and approved by voters, having those rules in place would reduce the potential for judicial overreach when map disputes go to court. A rules-based process would give state judges clear guidelines for setting legal district boundaries. A constitutional amendment also would make it tougher for a future General Assembly to undermine future redistricting plans with a simple majority vote by lawmakers. 

A redistricting amendment would offer an insurance policy protecting those out of power and keeping those with power in their place.